Intro from Jay Allison
If I manufactured digital audio recorders, I’d be happy there’s someone like Jeff Towne to pay so much loving attention to them. Transom is featuring another of Jeff’s ongoing series of affordable gear tests, this time, the Sony PCM-M10. It fills a niche somewhere between smartphone and professional recorder.
Read on for a complete rundown on all the features, with photos, comparison chart, and audio tests.
From Jeff Towne
It’s an interesting time for small digital recorders. As is happening with compact point-and-shoot cameras, basic audio recorders are at risk of being absorbed by multitasking smartphones. As with cameras, there’s still demand for higher-end equipment; someone doing a lot of critical audio recording will prefer a dedicated device, with more flexibility and customizability, with more robust connections, and greater overall reliability.
But what about the basic audio recorder: a device for beginners, or for those times you don’t want to carry a large rig, or when you need a backup? Should you just use your smartphone? The balance of pros and cons may change over time, but in 2011, there are still plenty of good arguments for using a dedicated audio recorder. Because they’re simpler than the little computers that we refer to as phones, digital recorders are generally more reliable, less likely to crash or freeze, and more likely to have more options specifically oriented toward audio recording.
Smartphones present the revolutionary options of editing and mixing within the device, and moving files over WIFI or data networks, but they rarely offer professional-caliber audio connections, and the sound quality is usually not quite as good as one can get with a purpose-built audio recorder. Dedicated recorders tend to have better battery life and larger storage capacity for making longer recordings.
Thankfully, within the world of small flash-memory recorders, new models continue to get smaller, more capable, and less expensive. We used to complain that all of the affordable recorders were oriented more toward people recording their rock bands in their basements, or perhaps recording college lectures or office dictation, rather than recording voices and ambiences. But some of the new inexpensive recorders have better sound quality and are relatively easy to use for collecting a wide range of sounds.
We’ve hit a fortunate confluence of technology in the last couple of years, and there are now small, inexpensive, good-sounding recorders that can easily achieve professional-quality results. One of those is the Sony PCM-M10. We’ve long been fans of the Sony PCM-D50, and often recommend it to audio documentarians. But there are a few things we don’t love about it: it’s a little pricey; it’s just a little bit too big and heavy to carry casually; the battery life isn’t great; and the built-in mics are VERY sensitive to even light breezes and handling noise. The M10 isn’t meant to be a replacement for the D50, or even to be an equivalent, but it does address many of the downsides of the D-50.
It’s small. In fact, it might be as small as a recorder can be, and still be practical. It’s a little wider and boxier than the Olympus LS-10 or LS-11, but it’s shorter, and fits in a pocket better. The Zoom H-1 is much smaller and more lightweight, but it suffers from having a display that’s not as easy to read, doesn’t have as many connections, and there’s no hardware input gain knob.
We get a little crazy with geeky gear-lust when contemplating the big, smooth, precise input gain knob of the Sony D-50, and sadly, the M10 does not have that beautiful piece of ergonomics. But it DOES have an input gain knob, and it lays conveniently underneath the thumb when holding it in the right hand. So adjusting record levels can be done smoothly and silently, if not quite as elegantly as on the D-50.
Although the recorder is small, about the size of a deck of cards, that’s just big enough to allow the control buttons to be accessed easily, to allow a screen that can be easily read, while displaying helpful information like levels and remaining available record time. I’m not sure it would be helpful for it to be any smaller – it fits comfortably in the hand as it is, and if it were any smaller, it would be hard to place all of the controls in an ergonomic way. It is just compact enough that one can put it in an average pocket, and carry it easily. Or it could be stored in a gear bag without taking up much room, perfect as a back-up or second recorder for people with larger, professional rigs.
The build quality seems solid, and it even looks like it’s made of metal, but in fact it’s mostly plastic. Nonetheless, it feels durable. I’m not sure it would survive a drop onto a hard surface, but it should hold up to normal wear-and-tear without any trouble. If there’s any deficiency to the construction, it’s that the mini USB connector, used to connect the recorder to a computer to transfer sound files, has no cover, so it seems likely that foreign objects could clog that port.
That mini USB port will get a lot of use if you rely on the built-in memory, and you could: the M10 comes with 4 gigabytes of internal memory, which provides between 4 and 5 hours of recording time at the standard 16-bit, 44.1 khz sample rate, wav format. If you desire additional record time, there are slots for external flash memory cards. We would have preferred that the external card slot was the common SD type, but instead the provided memory slots are for micro SD or Sony Memorystick. It’s an improvement over the D-50, which can only use Sony Memorystick: at least the M10 has the option of micro SD, which is a more universal format.
You may never need external memory cards, 4 gigs is a lot of record time. But for long recording excursions, a 16-gig memory card, combined with the internal memory, could give over 25 hours of recording at CD quality. There’s a menu setting that allows a recording to cascade from the internal memory to an external card, so very long recordings can be made without interruption. (Menu>>Detail Menu>>Cross-Memory Recording.)
Unlike the earlier Sony D-50 model, the M10 can record in MP3 format for even longer record times. It is not recommended to record original material in MP3 if sound quality is important. It’s perfectly fine for recording dictation, lectures, and other kinds of reference audio, but for radio broadcast, podcasts, or other kinds of distribution, it’s always best to record wav files. Converting files to MP3 multiple times can result in distorted audio, weird gurgles, metallic ringing, or other undesired artifacts. Because your audio is likely to be converted to a compressed format for delivery, it’s best to make your original recordings as uncompressed .wav files, and keep them in that format until the very end, only converting to the space-saving MP3, or AAC, or other compressed formats as the final step. That said, it’s nice to have the space-saving option of MP3 recording for less-critical operations, or dire emergencies.
On the other extreme, the M10 can record high-resolution files at sample rates up to 96khz, and bit depths of 24 bits. Those high-resolution files use more memory for each minute of recording, but may be desirable in critical situations such as recording quiet music instruments, birdcalls, or other such low-level, detailed sounds.
Plenty of recorders have the technical capability of recording high-quality sound, but not all of them do in practice. Often the microphone preamps or other elements of the input circuitry are not very good. The other Sony recorders we’ve used tend to have good quality, both using the built-in microphones and with external mics. Happily, the M10 follows the tradition of its predecessors: test recordings turned out very well.
As has been the case with many recorders we’ve tested, from many manufacturers, the sound quality is generally very good with the built-in microphones. Where many of the smaller, affordable recorders had been coming up short is when using external microphones. Predictably, we got better results on the M10 when using louder-output microphones, such as condenser mics, but that’s true of most recorders. The M10 has sufficient gain to work with quieter mics, even the dynamic omni mics that reporters like so well. A little bit of hiss and hum may rise up out of the murk when the gain is turned up very high for those quieter mics, but overall, the recordings will still be useable.
In general, we recommend condenser mics for use with these small recorders, but if you go that way, you must use mics that can use an internal battery for phantom power. The M10 only has a mini-jack mic input, no XLR inputs, and therefore cannot send phantom power to the microphone like some recorders with XLRs can. The M10 can provide “Plug-in Power” to electret mics that use that kind of powering. In fact, the M10 asks whether to turn on plug-in power when you plug an external mic into the minijack. But plug-in power and phantom power are different things, and one can’t be converted to the other.
In a perfect world, we’d prefer XLR jacks on our recorders. The connection is more robust, the balanced wiring of the cables rejects electromagnetic interference, and those balanced connections can transmit phantom power, which means that a wider variety of mics can be used. However, they take up a lot of space, so it’s understandable that a small recorder might use a minijack input instead. A good XLR-to-mini cable, wired correctly to send audio to both right and left channels, can sound every bit as good as an XLR cable. But the connection between the cable and the jack is a little fragile. We prefer cables with right-angle mini plugs, to reduce the chance of stressing the connector and jack. The M10’s minijack input is plastic, not metal, which is worrisome, but it just means that you should be careful with that cable and connector. The right angle plug reduces stress; making a small loop of cable and taping it to the back of the recorder can also go a long way toward reducing the stress on that jack. And try not to pack the recorder into a bag with the cable connected, so it doesn’t get bent in transit.
It’s tempting to just use the built-in mics, and forego the issues of cabling and microphone compatibility. The built-ins are indeed very good for recording location sound: musical performances, acoustic or amplified; demonstrations of an activity; large-scale events like parades, protests or rallies; vox-pop and other on-the-street interviews where the background sound is almost as important as the foreground. The Sony M10 is especially well-suited for this, because its built-in mics are omnidirectional, which makes them significantly less susceptible to wind and handling noise. Most small recorders employ highly directional microphones, in order to create a wide stereo image from the two closely-spaced mics. But with increased directionality comes increased sensitivity to wind and handling noise. The M10 isn’t immune from wind rumble or handling noise, but it’s easier to get clean recordings, free of the bassy rumble and distortion that can come from wind blowing across a mic, or from hands moving across the body of the recorder.
If you intend to use the built-in mics in outdoor situations, you’ll certainly still want to get some wind protection. The M10 does not ship with a windscreen, but Sony makes an optional furry windscreen that slides over the end of the recorder. It costs $50, which is kind of a lot when the recorder itself costs only a little over $200, but those furry covers are pretty effective. Rycote makes a “Mini-Windjammer” that fits the M10 for about the same price, and WindTech makes a “Mic Muff” (the MM-50 model) that fits many of the smaller recorders, and can be had for closer to $25.
The built-in mics work surprisingly well. In theory, one can’t get much of a stereo image from omnidirectional mics placed closely together, like they are on this recorder. But the proof is in the listening, and in practice, the M10 makes very nice stereo recordings, with good stereo separation, and imaging. Many other small recorders, including the M10’s big brother the Sony D50, make a big deal about adjustable position mics, which allow the user to select narrow or wide stereo pick-up patterns. Those are convenient options to have when you have time to be very precise in your placement of the recorder, but in the real world, it’s more common to just point the recorder at something and move it around until it sounds good. The M10 mics can’t be repositioned, but what’s more important is that they sound good, and can create a vivid you-are-there stereo image.
I’m commonly asked about stereo microphones at Transom, and my answer is increasingly that you already have a very good stereo mic if you own a little compact flash recorder. Almost all of them do a great job of being a stereo mic. This is true of the M10, with the added benefit of it being more forgiving than recorders with more directional mics.
But there are times when it would be preferable to use an external microphone. In almost all circumstances, interviews will turn out better when using an external mic that’s assigned to record voice. It’s easier to get the microphone in an ideal position for recording the voice, while keeping the recorder in a place where levels can be monitored, and adjustments can be made on-the-fly. And more to the point: the built-in mics are very good, but a dedicated interview mic usually sounds better, and can be handled easier, resulting in fewer P-Pops and less rumbling from handling noise.
Even when recording ambiences or performances, it’s occasionally better to use an external mic, just because of placement: the ideal position of the built-in microphones might make the recorder difficult to operate, and make it impossible to watch level meters. If you want to use the built-ins, there’s an easy solution to some of the operational issues: the M10 comes with a wired remote control, which is very handy if you’ve placed the recorder on a high stand or in some position that makes it hard to access the controls. There’s a standard tripod screw socket on the bottom of the case, that allows the recorder to be mounted on a tripod, or on a pistol grip.
It’s never ideal to record without being able to see the meters, but with some careful soundchecking, one can make good guesses about the best gain settings. The M10 has an Automatic Gain Control mode, which will continually adjust the input levels automatically, based on the incoming sound, but the constantly changing gain settings usually make recordings sound unnatural, so AGC is generally not recommended for critical recordings. It’s a good tool when recording purely for intelligibility, like when recording a lecture or dictation, but if the recording is meant to be used in an audio production, setting the gain manually is a better choice.
There is a built-in limiter, which can be turned on and off in a menu, and it works pretty well for catching the stray loud peak of sound that would otherwise cause distortion.
Operating the M10 is very straightforward. There are a series of menus that should be scrolled-through when you first set-up the recorder, but once your desired recording formats and a few other preferences are set you rarely need to access the menus. To record, you simply press the red record button. This puts the machine in record-pause mode, which allows you to set levels before starting the recording. However record-pause mode is the most perilous recording scenario: countless hours of great audio have been lost over the years because the operator thought a recorder was rolling, when it was actually in pause. The meters are bouncing, sound is being routed to the headphones, but you MUST always verify that the counter is rolling and that the yellow pause light is NOT blinking, to be sure that you are actually recording. Different recorders indicate this in different ways: sometimes blinking means recording; sometimes it means ready. Be sure to familiarize yourself with the conventions of your gear. In this case, a solid red record light is on in both states: record-pause and true record. To go from record-pause to record, press the play button or the pause button. The yellow pause light will stop blinking, and the time counter display will be rolling, up or down, depending on whether you have it set to show time elapsed or time remaining.
There’s a very readable backlit display that shows all the pertinent information, like time remaining in memory, battery level, and input levels. There are also lights located up near the built-in microphones: a green light for indicating signal-present, and a red light for indicating clips or “overs.” These are especially helpful in situations where it’s hard to see the LCD screen. You want to see the green lights blinking, if you don’t, your record levels are probably set too low. But you do NOT want to see the red lights flash – that means the input gain is set too high, and you may be getting crunchy distortion on the louder parts of your recording.
While recording, the M10 allows you to place “T-Marks” by pressing a silver button on the lower right of the face of the recorder. Those T-Marks can serve two purposes. After recording, they can be converted to track split points, creating new files with the T-Marks as the dividing lines. (Menu>> Divide>>Divide all T-Marks.) Or, without splitting the track into separate pieces, which could be difficult to keep track of, the T-Marks can simply be used as locator marks. Some audio editors can display and use the T-Marks in their displays. Transom’s favorite audio editor Hindenburg Journalist can read the T-Marks, displaying them as light blue lines, with numbers. Pressing the tab key will cause the cursor to jump between marks, making it easy to find marked sections, and make edits at those points, if desired.
Files are automatically named with the date of the recording, then a sequential number (so make sure that the internal calendar is set correctly!) Files are stored in a straightforward way, in MSSONY/HIFI/FOLDER01 by default, but you can choose to record into different folders if you like. After recording, the filenames can have “TAKE” or “KEEP” appended to the filename. (Menu>>Add “TAKE”>>Add TAKE/KEEP.)
Transferring files from the recorder to a computer couldn’t be easier: external cards can be removed and placed in card readers, or left in place, and accessed via the mini-USB port. When a cable is connected between that port and a computer, the recorder goes into “connecting” mode, with an icon of spinning arrows. It’s slightly unintuitive that it stays in that mode – it never changes to “Connected” but you’ll see the internal memory and any external cards show up on your computer as external drives. Simply dragging-and dropping from the recorder to the computer’s drive will copy the files. Files are not automatically deleted after being copied, so after you’re confident that they copied successfully to your computer (and you made a back-up!) you can manually delete them, or simply reformat the memory in the recorder. (Menu>>Detail Menu>>Format.)
The M10 ships with an AC power adapter, which is rare, and quite helpful when recording in a location that has AC power. Strangely, it’s barely needed; the battery life on this recorder is truly amazing. Basic alkaline batteries last forever. I always used to do a test, letting the recorder run itself down, to see how long the batteries last in real-world use. After a few days, I got tired of the test: suffice it to say that somehow, this recorder can operate for a LONG time on 2 double-A batteries. It can also use NiMh rechargeables, but be sure to go through the menu and set the battery type in order to get an accurate read-out of remaining battery life. The recorder cannot recharge the batteries; you’ll need a dedicated battery charger for that.
There are some other bells and whistles, like pitch control, bass roll-off, loop-play, and a few other things that are only really useful to a small subset of users, but thankfully basic operations are fairly straightforward, despite the need to navigate menus occasionally. The “Detail Menu” is kind of odd, I’m not sure why those items aren’t on the top level with the other adjustable preferences, but it’s not too hard to remember to look in that sub-menu if you don’t see an entry for the adjustment you’d like to make.
One thing that’s unique to the M10: it comes in colors. The basic model is typical Sony gray and silver, but it can also be purchased with a red or white case. It’s a small thing, but it can be handy to identify recorders if you have more than one…
The Sony M10 is a welcome addition to the ever-expanding line-up of small, affordable digital recorders. It’s small enough to carry conveniently, yet large enough to operate ergonomically. It feels well built, and most important, it sounds great. It works well with external microphones, the only caveat being that without XLR inputs one cannot use all condenser mics, only those that can supply their own phantom power. The mini-jack mic input is not as robust as an XLR jack, but with careful use, and a good XLR-to-mini converter cable, there shouldn’t be any significant impact on sound quality. At a common street price of only about $230 USD, it’s not the cheapest recorder out there, there are several choices in the $99 range, but the sturdiness and ergonomics of the M10 make it worth the extra expense. The Sony PCM-M10 is a great choice for a starter recorder, or as a back-up for a more sophisticated rig. Its quality is good enough for it to be a primary recorder, and hey, at that price, maybe get two, just to be safe…